The debate ignited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to extend sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria (West Bank), coming on the eve of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, may have created a window of opportunity to discuss something that needs to be addressed first – what does Israel need to control east of the 1949 Armistice line in order to have a defensible border?
In an ideal world, the results of the election would have allowed the Blue and White Party – led by three former Israeli chiefs of staff – to join a unity government with Netanyahu, which would form a clear majority consensus on Israeli national strategic redlines in the West Bank. To supporters of a “two states for two peoples” resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most damaging consequence of the Israeli election was that it opened up an unnecessary debate over extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank before an agreement is reached by the parties.
Four leading pro-Israel Democrats – including the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Eliot Engel and the House chairwomen of the Appropriations Committee Nita Lowey – warned Israel not to take any unilateral actions, as it would profoundly damage support for Israel within the Democratic Party, especially with the ascendancy of members who support the Palestinian narrative of the illegitimacy of the Jewish presence in the Levant.
The statement said that “Two states for two peoples, negotiated directly by the two sides with mutually agreed upon land swaps, is the best option to achieve a Jewish, democratic, secure Israel living side-by-side with a democratic, demilitarized Palestinian.”
They went on to place much of the blame on a “Palestinian leadership [that] has been unwilling to accept any reasonable peace proposal or even to negotiate seriously toward a solution.”
If Israel can present a strong and balanced consensus of its security and political establishment, it would strengthen its case with the United States and other international players, and thwart those who claim Israel has no strategic interests east of the Green Line.
Any annexation at this time – without first explaining Israel’s essential security imperatives – would be seen by many as a land-grab. Now is the time to also enlist American help in laying out the case why Israel has legal rights in the disputed territory – something that is essential for those who believe the path is through a two-state solution – or else land swaps will always be perceived as stolen territory.
WITH IRAN now implanted in both Lebanon and Syria and its militia integrated within the Iraqi army, protecting Israel’s eastern flank has never been more important. The eastern border of the West Bank is the Jordan River Valley, bordering on Jordan.
From a security standpoint, this is where any future extension of sovereignty or two-state debate should begin, using much of the same logic as Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights as an indispensable strategic barrier.
Jordan is a fragile state threatened from within by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, destabilized by millions of refugees with no good prospects from Syria and Iraq, threatened by Iran from its east and north from Syria, and distrusted by its Palestinian majority citizenry who resent the Hashemite monarchy that allies with America.
What you have is a recipe for a failed state in the not-too-distant future, making Israel’s claim to this strategic area even more urgent.
So can Israel ever give up the Jordan River Valley?
Previous two-state peace plans that put an end-date on Israeli control of the Jordan River Valley seem unrealistic, knowing that an Arab Winter could return at any time to the region and leave Jordan ripe for an Islamist or Iranian takeover. With no Israeli control of the Jordan River Valley, Iran or Sunni jihadists could be in Tulkarm or Kalkilya – a stone’s throw from the Azrieli Sarona Tower in Tel Aviv.
Previous US plans called for NATO, American or international peacekeeping forces in place of Israeli soldiers as a more palatable alternative to Palestinians.
Can you trust an international force to ensure Israel’s security in the Jordan Valley?
You need to only look at the failure of the international UNIFIL force in Lebanon that has failed to identify or stop a single one of Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets.
Trusting security to NATO? NATO’s second largest army is Turkey, now transformed into a Muslim Brotherhood antisemitic entity.
Israel should never outsource its security – not even to the US, as Israel never wants any American soldier placed in harm’s way to protect them.
Trusting Europeans? They have been supporting Palestinian organizations that have been illegally making land-grabs in Area C in defiance of the Oslo Accords.
ANOTHER STRATEGIC scenario to review is to ask what would happen if Israel and the PA come to an agreement, and then Hamas overthrows the PA as they did in Gaza in 2007. The new Palestinian state would become Hamastan, just a few miles from Ben-Gurion Airport and within easy low-cost rocket range of 80% of the Israeli population within the Tel Aviv bubble. Imagine Tel Aviv as Sderot.
If Israeli military experts deem strategic depth an imperative, is it wiser to annex territory now, or do nothing and wait for the Palestinians to come to the table in good faith?
The best but highly unlikely way to forestall any Israeli preemptive moves would be for those with influence on the Palestinians to tell them to clearly state in Arabic that they are for two states for two peoples, not the preposterous two-state solution where two states means one completely Arab state in the West Bank, and a binational state in Israel with an unlimited right of return of overwhelming numbers of Arabs.
Every two-state peace deal has acknowledged the reality of Israel keeping settlement blocs as part of any final outcome. So, would it be so unreasonable for Israel to annex them in the future if the Palestinians never return to genuine negotiations?
UNSC Resolution 242, after the Six Day War, acknowledged that Israel has legitimate rights over the 1949 armistice line in the disputed territory.
Returning to the indefensible 1967 lines would be strategic suicide for Israel.
As Ambassador Abba Eban – who was no right-wing figure – said after the 1967 war, “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967... The June map [1967 before the Six Day War] is – for us – equivalent to insecurity and danger.”
Which brings us back to risks of unilateral Israeli action to extend sovereignty to the major settlement blocks, the Jordan River Valley or to the heights of the Samaria hills.
Netanyahu is smart enough to know that the answer for Israel at this time is to avoid unilateral actions, rhetoric aside. The diplomatic risks outweigh the benefits, which the status quo already affords.
However, beginning a public debate to develop a majority national consensus on Israel’s strategic and territorial requirements in the West Bank would be a good start for his legacy.
If only he were not under threat of indictment, then Blue and White could join him for the public good.The writer is director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA and The Forward.
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